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  The Russian Desert  

 

THE RUSSIAN DESERT:
A NOTE ON OUR STATE
OF KNOWLEDGE


DOUGLAS MACAGY



"All that we loved is lost—we are in a desert, faced with a black square on a white ground!"1

This is how Kasimir Malevich summed up public reaction to the initial geometric figure he posed as art at Moscowin 1913. In his view, that figure was itself a reaction against all recognized forms of representation in art.

A rudimentary sign, it was also a portent. It was one of the first complete pictorial breaks with a long mimetic tradition, counterposing the structural side of art in utmost simplicity. To some. this alternative introduced an empty prospect, but others have been cultivating the so-called desert ever since.

The outright decision Malevich first demonstrated then (he was 35, in midcareer) has a wide-spread appeal today which, in effect, telescopes the half-century between. Much of what he produced during those years of war and revolution in Russia could almost be imagined as having come to us straight from the easel.

The same cannot be said of our knowledge of that remarkable period. We are being led to believe that a number of artists of the time were in the habit of putting their ideas into print, but so far we are fairly short on evidence of this possibility. Where access to the alleged abundance of such literature is concerned. as yet we find Joshua trees and occasionally flowering cacti in a desert that is claimed to have been irrigated.

This is the case even with Malevich who seems to have been a more prolific writer than most of the artists around him. In connection with the public debut of his Suprematist paintings (36 of them) at a Petrograd exhibition called "0.10" in 1915, he issued his Suprematist manifesto and also published a book the same year. Michel Seuphor tabulates the manifesto in his Dictionary of Abstract Painting2 and Camilla Gray quotes eight statements from it in her book, The Great Experiment. Russian Art 1863-1922.3 Specialists nod sagely when this manifesto is mentioned, but when asked for a loan or reproduction of a copy. they direct the inquirer to somebody else. Further inquiries have the same result.

Referring in the middle fifties to the artist's book, Die Gegenstandslose Welt, Seuphor said "This remarkable work is the only existing source of information on his art and thought."4 But not long ago the Danish scholar Troels Andersen reported that "A great deal of written material" was "rediscovered in 1953." In 1927, on his final trip abroad, Malevich handed over the book manuscript to be edited at the Bauhaus by Moholy-Nagy. Then, just before his departure, he left a number of paintings with friends for safekeeping (after that, the cloak and dagger career of these works is hair-raising) and also a mass of unpublished papers with a man who had acted as his interpreter and translator. Besides the leftovers in Germany, and additional published material that turned up recently, the Czech historian Jiri Setlik now indicates that still more writings have since been located in Russia.5

Such largesse could become a qualified blessing. However lucid Malevich was as an artist, as a writer he was often long on meaning but short on syntax. Camilla Gray, who has produced the most definitive book on the Russian movement, tells us that his unsystematic prose style sometimes makes little sense in Russian, and on those occasions, none at all in translation.

Most of the ideas we have read concerning abstract art have come from Europe rather than from European Russia where the practice of such art had its first great social sway. Now we have reason to hope that further knowledge from sources in Russia might redress a balance in our understanding of the whole. After Stalin's death we have become familiar with a freezethaw pattern in Soviet censorship. In general the thaw has been slightly favored. From the start of suppression, certain formal aspects of what had been called "art" were put to work and sustained as "design." Due to this primitive magic of nomenclature, men such as Tatlin, Lissitzky and Rodchenko were allowed to work creatively in prescribed fields.6 The work suited their ideological declarations —made during the "Four Heroic Years" which followed the Revolution—although one wonders what possessed Tatlin to paint those wishy-washy figures later on.

"Design" has also been a convenient cover for a group of young artists which began to show abstract art in Moscow a few years ago. They have also exhibited in Leningrad and Prague. Three-dimensional structures displayed in Moscow bear a striking resemblance to certain works of Gabo which the group could have seen only through reproduction. This not only indicates a rejuvenated interest by Russians themselves in their own forbidden heritage, it could also be a sign that the confusion between art and design which has choked access to existing archives is being reviewed at last.

There is evidence, however, that that heritage may have been distantly accessible over the years. In the three years from 1818-1921, 36 provincial museums were set up by the new regime. Where art was concerned, they were stocked with a preponderance of abstract works which Rodchenko allocated. (He seems to have used his office to get back at other artists, as when he tried to send a piece by Gabo to Siberia—to the latter's indignation. Rodchenko had been piqued by Gabo's criticism of the "Compass and Ruler" drawings that had brought him first acclaim.) Late word from interested travelers indicates that abstract art in the hinterland was not put into storage, as it was in the big city museums, and may be seen there on some walls now. A traveler speculates that a hands-off policy was adopted in the provinces so as not to give an impression of unwelcome central control.

Up to now most of what we know comes from sources in Europe, where only residual information remains to be sifted or found. The search is now centered inside Russia where the hold appears to be loosening. Privileged outsiders are making headway. A Polish delegation is said to be investigating the period as a whole, and two corps of Czechoslovakian scholars have impressed Western Europeans with their findings by means of lectures, most of which have not yet been published.7 Visitors report that the main body of research will probably be produced by Russians. This may take some time. Able scholars there naturally want to be the first to disclose major findings, but zealous research in this area apparently remains a touchy political problem.

Gathering information in Russia for "The Great Experiment," Miss Gray found that available evidence—apart from the works of art she saw—was chiefly in the form of exhibition catalogues and newspaper reviews. In her opinion, shared by other interrogators, reminiscence elicited by personal interview of those who were there often results in sketchy, prejudiced and contradictory views of a period of incredible turmoil.

That turmoil reached its initial peak in 1917 when all the principal artists were on hand and new opportunities for control in the new society were there for the taking. It was the abstract artists who took them. The senior Kandinsky (51) had returned from a sojourn in Scandinavia, assuming a high post under his friend Lunacharsky, Commissar of Education. Malevich (39) was in Moscow doing his "cross" paintings and beginning his "architectural" projections. Tatlin (32) was at work with Rodchenko (26) making an environment in a wild cafe. Pevsner (31) and Gabo (27) had arrived from Scandinavia. Lissitzky (27) was busy planning street decorations —a role of significance at a time when public rallies had become a comfort to individual courage.

In a recent conversation. Gabo recalled that all artists were being detailed to give talks through town. Asked if he felt driven by such directives. he cried "No! It was wonderful! We were exultant! Everybody had ideas!" For a while everybody was chasing around being happily voluble while they tightened their belts. Those "heroic" years were physically tough at the start, and became worse.

They also got worse at other levels. Drawn together by a common interest in abstract art and the promise of a better society, the artists soon differed about the nature of the former and subsequently split on its relation to the latter. Discrepancies of age, temperament and background were causal. Malevich and Tatlin had already come to blows. To some, Kandinsky was too austere, too worldly, too old and too well-connected. Pevsner and Gabo had been working abroad and had just turned up, as if strangers. Tatlin, a drop-out and runaway, had been a sailor and one-time entertainer. When Rodchenko applied for membership in the Communist Party, he was made an Associate because he lacked the requisite formal schooling. In those days. bureaucratic controls were shifting at a dizzy pace, and some artists took advantage of the changes at the expense of others. Soon sides were lined up and an open rupture occurred as the 'twenties began.

Tatlin, Rodchenko and a cadre advocated art's immediate incorporation by existing economic and industrial procedures as a way of serving society best. (All along, the question of how art should suit—or be made to fit—the new system had plagued debate.) The opposition, composed of Kandinsky, Malevich, Pevsner, and Gabo, took the stand that the artist's vision would be cramped by local and temporal demands so imposed. His service to culture, in the long run, they held, would be far superior without such fetters. This was, and is. a crucial issue.

(A similar dispute divided the third international meeting of Nova Tendencija at Zagreb in 1965. Significantly, for this meeting, the policy-makers had reduced the former title "New Tendencies" to the singular. An attempt was made later to impose, on the invited artists, "project displays" which would show how "pure" art could be made practical within an economic and technological framework.)

In retrospect it is hard to imagine how most of the artists involved by that remarkable Russian circumstance might have reached agreement even without its pressures. Amicable disagreement is another matter, and this may be supposed to have resided in the brief alliances mentioned. Kadinsky's relation with Malevich is said to have been cool, and from their respective writings Kandinsky and Gabo show quite different ways of looking out from the subject in which they were engaged.

Reviewing the verbal record as it is so far known, what we seem to need most is further word from Tatlin and Rodchenko. Tatlin wrote about his past in a bulletin published in 1921 (Ezhednevnii Bulletin S'ezda. No. 13, p. II), but this is still out of reach here. In 1919 Rodchenko declared his outlook by means of quotations in the catalogue of the Tenth State Exhibition; the quotations included many from Walt Whitman; In 1921 he spoke out in print for his then theory of primary colors (catalogue of "5X5=25"). He spoke of introducing red, yellow and blue. as such. into art for the "first time." Again, neither is accessible at this time. Tatlin and Rodchenko appear, from evidence we know about, to have been spare with words. Their theories were articulated by others, such as the poet Mayakovsky, Osip Bizik, Boris Kushner, the theatrical producer Meyerhold, and notably by critics such as Nikolai Punin (Tatlin. Against Cubism. 1921) and Alexei Glan {Constructivism 1922). But even these, to my knowledge, are not available outside Russia. In fact there is a question about their availability to scholars in Russia. All we have are some excerpts.

At present, the Realistic Manifesto signed by Naum Gabo and Noton Pevsner in 1920, issued under dramatic circumstances then, is by far the most lucid statement of a point of view from that time. Gabo, who at seventy-seven has outlived all the artists mentioned here, has recorded this historic statement in English for inclusion in Aspen 5 + 6.


A Note on Exhibitions

In the Fall of 1967 a survey exhibition of Russian art from the period was presented in Berlin—a deja-vu to elders with long memories, since the first and only comprehensive show of this kind until now was staged there, and later at Amsterdam. in 1922. The largest comprehensive display of this art in 45 years will be included in a huge exhibition at Buffalo, New York, now being organised by the author for the 2nd Buffalo Festival of the Arts Today, to take place in March, 1968. Meanwhile, on occasions which have quickened pace since World War II, one-man exhibitions of Kandinsky, Malevich, Pevsner, Gabo, Lissitzky and Puni have appeared in Europe and the United States.8 The Museum of Modern Art in New York is planning a Malevich exhibition in the Fall Of 1969.

Unconnected with his development , but of interest because the artists had been associated with an outlook by then discounted as "art," one-man shows were accorded at Moscow in 1929 to Malevich, in 1933 to Tatlin, and posthumously to Rodchenko in 1957.





1From Die Gegenstandslose Welt. Albert Langen Verlag, Munich, 1927. Translated from German to English as "The NonObjective World," Chicago,1960. Despite the artist's own claims, whether the square was exhibited in 1913 or just conceived then is a matter of recent debate.

2Dictionary of Abstract Painting. Tudor, New York, 1958 p.106.

4Ibid, p 34

3The Great Experiment. Russian Art 18631922 Abrams, New York, 1962, p.193.

5Issued first at Vitebsk in 1920, the Malevich book About New Systems in Art was reprinted in Copenhagen, 1963, with the subtitle "Papers 1915-1922."

Prepared initially for publication in two volumes, his "Suprematism as the Aimless" remained unfinished at his death in 1935. Expanded in the 1920s, parts have appeared in print and parts have disappeared; others are not yet available to the public. Sections formed the nucleus of the Bauhaus book. Additions from papers left in Germany were included in Suprematismus Die Gegenstandslose Welt produced in Cologne 1962. During the Leningrad siege of World War II, Mme Malevich was evacuated, after which it was discovered that a large portion of the manuscript, left there. was missing. Andersen, who itemizes all known and unknown components of this work in his catalogue essay to Stockholm's Modern Museet show of Malevich in 1966, reports that fragments have been preserved in a private USSR archive, and surmises that still others may yet be found in similar places.

In 1930, when Malevich was temporarily arrested on an unproved charge of being politically unreliable, his frightened friends are thought to have burned some of his papers. Surviving pages are charred, it is said. All along, objective investigation meets evidence of probable panic, violation, and secretion of what friendly hands could snatch when moments counted

Supplemented by Andersen's footnotes, Gray's bibliography—which includes a separate section in Russian—amplify the sketch given here. Andersen's Malevich on NewArt, Studio International (Vol. 174, No. 892) September, 1967, discusses the artist's later writings at length. His book Moderne Russisk Kunst 1910-1925, printed so far only in Danish but now being considered for English translation, contains many further references. A Malevich monograph is soon to be published by Dumont.

6For examples, see Camilla Gray; El Lissitzky, Typographer; Typographica 1960: Alexander Rodchenko, Constructivist Designer, Portfolio 1962.

7Examples so far: Miroslav Lamac—Gegensf ande sind ausgekuhlte Gedanken, Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte des Suprematismus, Diskus 5, Frankurter Studentenzeitung, July 1967; Der Unbekanote Malevich, Beabachtungen zu skinem Werk von 1920 bis 1935.

8Principal examples, including some of early date:

Malevich—"From Impressionism to Suprematism" Moscow, 1919, Grosse Berliner Kunstausstellung, 1927 (a room); retrospective, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, 1929; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 1958; Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, 1959; Kunsthalle, Bern, 1959; Galleria D'Arte Moderna, Rome, 1959 Moderna Museet, Stockholm, 1966.

Pevsner—(with Gabo) Chicago Arts Club, 1934; (with Gabo) The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1948.

Gabo—KestnerGesellschaft, Hanover, 1930; (with Pevsner) Chicago Arts Club, 1934; (with Pevsner) The Museum of Modem Art, New York, 1948; Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, 1951; (with Albers) Chicago Arts Club, 1952; Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, 1953; Boymans Museum, Rotterdam. 1958; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 1958; Stedeiijk Museum, Amsterdam. 1965; Kunsthalle, Mannheim, 1965; Wilhelm-Lehmbruck-Museum, Duisberg, 1965; Kunsthaus, Zurich, 1965; Moderna Museet, Stockholm, 1965; Tate Gallery, London, 1965.

Lissitzky—Kestner Gesellschaft, Hanover,1965-66.

Puni—Winterpalais, Leningrad; 1923 (shown Der Strum, Berlin, 1921); Jeu de Paume, Paris. 1966. (An elaborate catalogue raisonne of Puni's lifework, stressing his Suprematist period by means of memoirs and unpublished documents, is to be published in France in 1968 by Verlag Ernst Hasmuth, Tubinglen, Germany.)

Rodchenko—Aside from his posthumous exhibition at the Moscow "House of Journalists" 1957, the record shows only a small one-man show at the Moscow Club Levi Federatsii in 1918. In all, he participated in 52 group shows in and outside Russia.




 








 

Original format: Single sheet, 16 by 8 inches, folded to make four pages.

 
 
 

 

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